Stop Making Bad or Impulsive Decisions: Use the Power of Small Dose Learning


 Often we get stuck when it comes to making decisions. We may make decisions impulsively, don’t gather enough information, data or knowledge, feel over whelmed with too many choices or don’t use a process or structure to make them.

For example, take this client of mine named Ted, an 18-year-old student who has recently made the choice to go to college and major in Forestry. What led him to reach that decision? Dad who is a rancher, a favorite Biology teacher, life experiences, childhood dreams etc. Well it probably was all of that and more, but one thing lacking was a coherent structure or approach to decision-making. Let’s explore, Ted’s case to see how many of us go about making important life decisions just like he did to select like a major in college which leads us to a certain career path and maybe disappointment or success.

Well, Ted spent one month exploring other possibilities—basketball coach, law school and psychologist—and he eventually decided on Forestry as a best fit. He’s always enjoyed the outdoors, camping and hiking were his avocation, climate change was an issue he thought was a field he could make a difference in and he likes the idea of working  with others that have the same values about the importance of nature and the environment. He feels like the lifestyle of a Forester, would provide the freedom from bosses and the authoritarian structure of big corporate organizations and yet would provide a reasonable salary and secure benefits now and in the future. And there was the plus of probably a great lifestyle in a wonderful geographic area, and if he was to marry and have children a wonderful environment to raise them in.

He thought this was pretty good information to base a career decision on.  Yet he had an unsettling feeling in the pit of his stomach about this decision. Steve is contemplating a minimum time commitment of 4 years for undergraduate and possibly two more years for graduate school, not to mention tens of thousands of dollars in loans that he would have to payback. He’s placing a huge bet on really limited personal experience. His situation makes  him a prime candidate for a “real-life” sampling through a small-dose learning experiment. Instead he moves to settle this decision by using as most of us do a pro/con decision-making process. The only tools needed are a blank piece of paper and pen or pencil. In one column he lists the positive reasons to go with this decision to become a Forest Ranger. In the other, column he list the negative things pushing for a different decision. Within about four hours of research and one night to sleep on his decision he decides to go for his dream. A high risk decision which puts at risk his future.

Now let’s look at his decision if  he used a different approach which includes real life experiments and action learning structure.  I call this framework “Small dose learning.”  Small dose learning means to explore, conduct and reflect on a small “real-life” experiments to test one’s thinking about a particular decision or course of action. An obvious Small Dose Experiment (SDE) for Ted would be to take one Summer and work in Forestry position. That’s a small experiment that would allow him to experience, up close, what the real life of a Forest Ranger is  like. This real life experiment would provide him with information and insights about the daily activities and responsibilities of job, the people he would be working with and the opportunities in this type of career before he makes a huge commitment of time and money based on a childhood dream and a few hiking and camping trips.

Surely this concept—of conducting experiments and action learning projects will help us to test a decision by getting real-life experience and insights before committing our time and resources to  making a decision that down the road we may regret.  Yet every year hordes of students enroll in Universities with know more data and experience as Ted. Law students who never spent a day in a law office, accountants who don’t know what it means to be an auditor and medical students who never spent time exploring or working in a hospital or clinic. Imagine going to school for four or five years so you can start a career that you find out later entails boring paper work, budgeting, and technical know how and activities that don’t fit with your strengths and interests in life.  This is a truly terrible decision process, in the same league as an unrealistic decision to be a policeman or fireman because that’s what you loved to make-believe and play as a kid.

To avoid these mistakes and provide a better chance of finding a better fit between dreamers  and reality many organizations and graduate schools are now requiring that you resume include some practical experience like information interviews, or”shadowing” experience or internships before making short-sighted and impulsive decisions.  Some Medical Schools and MBA programs, for instance, do not admit students unless they have spent some time out “in the real world” observing and working at least a 16 week internship in an a hospital or emergency care unit or have worked in business for two or three years.   That way, all incoming students are ground in a basic understanding of the profession they’re preparing to enter.

The lesson here and question for you– is how do you go about making decisions and what activities can you test-out before jumping in with a decision that can effective your happiness and quality of life for a long time to come.

So next time when your making an important life decision try to find different ways to gather more information and experiences so that you increase you chances of making a better decision. If experimenting doesn’t suit your style than just flip a coin and go for it. But remember you must live with your choices and turning them around may be painful and time-consuming.


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